A new life in the `land of opportunity'. Relocated Hmong refugees make a home for themselves in rural North Carolina
Morganton, N.C. — WHEN federal officials asked Toua Lo, his wife, Mee Thao, and their five children to move from a public housing project in Fresno, Calif., to a guaranteed job in North Carolina, the family hesitantly agreed. Like most Hmong tribespeople from the highlands of Laos, Toua Lo and Mee Thao spoke little English, had little education, and had no experience with industrial jobs. In their nine years in the United States, the family had never been able to get off public assistance.
Now, a year and a half later, they own their own home. Almost as important to them, they are growing a garden.
Back in Fresno, which has the largest Hmong community in the nation (estimated at 18,000), as many as 90 percent are on welfare. Many other refugee communities around the country are also struggling. In what Toyo Biddle, deputy director of policy for the Department of Health and Human Services, calls ``an employment strategy of last resort,'' the department has asked refugee families in areas of high unemployment to move again to better job opportunities.
Here in the green hills of Burke County, N.C., 57 families of Hmong refugees - about 500 people - who took the government's offer have made a new life in a simpler, gentler part of the country than the cities where most refugees have settled.
``This country a lot like my country,'' says Pang Hang Vang, a sewing machine operator at the Alba Waldensian textile plant in Burke County, who moved south from Long Island, N.Y., with her husband to join her mother and brothers last year. Mrs. Vang says her family can fish in mountain streams as they once did in Laos.
Bordering on Pisgah National Forest, the Appalachian county is a region of small family farms and mountain vistas. Its economy is based on nonunionized textile and furniture industries. Morganton, its largest town, has a population of 16,000. Gas stations sell tomato seedlings and live bait.
``A lot of noise, so many peoples, traffics, train, cars, I don't think is the right place for Hmong people,'' says Kue Chaw, interpreter and director of the Hmong Natural Association, an organization of Hmong people that sponsors families resettled in North Carolina. ``Many generations in the future, yes. But now makes confusion.''
Unlike the highly educated refugees who first arrived in the US after the fall of Saigon, those fleeing Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam since 1976 have been mostly rural folk - farmers and fishermen with no experience in city ways.
Hmong highlanders, in particular, come from a culture that has changed its agricultural and religious practices little since the 16th century. Some refugee resettlement workers wonder privately if it is possible for them to be resettled successfully in an industrial nation. Many Hmong had never seen electricity or running water or operated a machine of any kind before coming to the US.
Confused and exhausted, tied to large extended families and fearful of losing welfare benefits, few refugees have accepted the government's offer to be relocated to places where employment opportunities are greater. Toua Lo and Mee Thao were one of eight Hmong families who agreed to move from California to North Carolina in 1985.
But within two weeks of arriving in Burke County, Toua Lo recalls in his spacious but sparsely finished living room, both he and Mee Thao found jobs. Four moths later, the bank approved a loan for their house.
Fifteen more Hmong families made the move last year. Their chances for success seem good. Thirty-nine Hmong families in Burke County currently own their own homes, including two others who were moved from California in 1985. Helped by the county's 3.6 percent unemployment rate, every family has at least one working member.
``They get their birthdays off with pay, but they'll work on their birthdays if you don't remind them,'' says Greta Herman, first shift supervisor of the warehouse-size sewing room at Alba Waldensian. Mee Thao, Kue Chaw's wife Moa Moua, and 18 other Hmong women are sewing machine operators here.
By sewing a waistband on a pair of women's underwear every four or five seconds, operators can make as much as $7 an hour. In addition, Ms. Herman explains over the continuous buzz of the machines, after 90 days employees get hospital insurance, dental care, sick leave, and paid vacation.
At Capri Industries, a glass refinishing plant that employs about 40 Hmong men, mostly as machine operators, personnel manager Leonard Hawkins says that the company's experience with Hmong workers has been so positive that he has instructions to hire them any time he has a suitable opening.
On the Capri factory floor, Ge Lor, a young man who arrived in the US in May from a refugee camp in Thailand, pulls plate glass on trolleys from one work station to another. The second shift supervisor, Laotoua Lo, is a Hmong who has been in the US for 11 years and who studied at a technical school in Connecticut.
The industries of Burke County pay some of the lowest manufacturing wages in the country, but alternating factory shifts make it possible for both parents of young children to work. Toua Lo, who works a first shift job, cares for his 2-year-old daughter between the time that Mee Thao goes to work on the second shift and his older children come home from school. Many teen-agers work a four-hour shift in the evenings.
Traditionally, Hmong men did not take care of children, and women did not work outside the family, says Youa K. Hang at the Hmong Natural Association. Now, she says, people have learned to do new things.
But adjustment to a new culture is never easy. ``If you let elderly people cross the street right now, they don't know when to cross,'' says Kue Chaw, who helps refugees go to doctor's appointments, get driver's licenses, and open credit accounts. ``Red light, green light, they don't know.''
Many Hmong need help with language, business, machinery, and law, he says. ``In Laos you have all the land you want, raise your water buffalo, and no tax. And time is very flexible.''
The rural landscape gives solace to older refugees who never imagined that they would some day be living in an industrial society on the other side of the world. In the yard outside his trailer, Kue Doua, an elderly shaman, cleans fish caught from a nearby river while his grandson, 2-year-old B.J., plays at his feet. Kue Doua's wife, Sao Ying Ly, gardens or sews by hand the traditional Hmong flower cloth, or pa ndau, a brightly colored cross-stitch. Neither of the old people speaks any English.
When B.J.'s mother, Youa Yang, comes home from her first shift job at Alba Waldensian, she visits with the older people until her six other children, who resemble any Western teen-agers in T-shirts and slacks, come home from school. She and her husband, Kue Ge, who works a third shift job, own the modest frame house beside Kue Doua's trailer.
Like her neighbor Moa Moua, Youa Yang plants a garden of corn, squash, onions, beans, and peas as well as harvesting wild greens and medicinal plants from the edges of the woods. The families also keep a few chickens.
``People like to work in their gardens a lot,'' explains Ms. Hang. ``That's the second thing besides their work.''
Five years ago, Kue Chaw grew Burke County's first rice crop. ``Rice here cleaned with machines is like the bark of a tree that has no vitamins to help the body,'' he says. ``You need rice grown by yourself, grind with hand grinder, cook yourself.''
Last year he brought a bowl of his home-grown rice down to Sid's Market, a general store and agricultural supply outlet a mile or so down the road from his house. He has cautiously tried teaching a few Hmong words to some of the regulars there.
``It was all right for rice - kinda sticky,'' recalls proprietor Sid Houk, a lean man in his late 30s with an easy smile. Mr. Houk owns a piece of land adjoining one Hmong family. They are quiet people, he says, whose English is slowly improving. He says everyone gets along with them just fine.
There was a time when relations between longtime residents and Hmong newcomers were not so smooth, reports Rev. Allen G. McKinney, whose Garden Creek Baptist Church in Marion, N.C., sponsored the first Hmong families in the area in 1976. As the number of Hmongs grew, and local industries felt the pangs of the national recession, some argued that the refugees took jobs from Americans, had too many children, and disrupted the stable community. In 1978, there was some effort to make the Hmongs a local election issue. But, says Mr. McKinney, ``it died on the vine, honey.''
The bottom line, he says, was that the Hmong work hard, pay taxes, are quiet, and keep out of trouble, and that the church, an influential force in the community, is committed to supporting them.
``Here the people speak very solid; whatever they say they do it,'' says Kue Chaw. ``Ninety percent of the people here, they won't be snake or curvy in what they say.
``They look, yes. They study, too. Why is this stranger show up here? But this doesn't hurt my feelings. It's normal when someone strange comes to your village you have to watch what they do, until you see that they are friends and you can trust them.''
Like most of the older Hmong men in the US, Kue Chaw fought against the communists in Laos in an army covertly organized by the CIA during the Vietnam war. An officer, he and his family were among the few flown out when US troops pulled out of the region. One of his daughters was left behind. He and 14 members of his family spent a year in the Ban Vinai refugee camp in Thailand before being allowed into the US.
Now, on a wall behind his desk at the Hmong Natural Association, Mr. Chaw has posted a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, a National Geographic illustrated map of Southeast Asia, and two maps of the US. A newspaper clipping shows one of his seven sons in a soccer match at Morganton's Freedom High School, and another clipping describes a young American Hmong who succeeded in his dream of becoming a policeman.
A hand-lettered sign proclaims, ``Yoo are now in the land of opportunity.''
``I never dreamed I would come some day to a developed country like this,'' he says. ``I thought I would live all my life in my village. A lot of people are missing their country. But that's in the past.''